The Political Use of Walking Corpses in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum

‘Such things often happened in England’

 

This was the matter-of fact answer given to Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (d.1200), upon hearing that a walking corpse was causing a nuisance in an unnamed Buckinghamshire village. Unwilling to follow the advice of his advisors to burn the corpse, Hugh instead ordered that a scroll of absolution be placed on the dead man’s chest. Apparently this did the trick, for the revenant immediatly stopped terrorising his neighbours and loved ones.

Along with three similar stories, this episode is recorded in book five of William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (c.1198). According to William, restless corpses were also encountered in Berwick, Melrose and ‘Anant’ (which scholars have taken to be Alnwick in Northumberland). Not all of those who encountered the undead followed Hugh’s example in absolving the deceased of whatever sins compelled him or her to walk. The residents of Berwick, concerned that their own walking corpse was infecting the town with corrupted, noxious air, decided that cremation was the only viable option, as ‘shown by frequent examples in similar cases.’ Religious houses were not immune to being pestered by the undead. Monks from the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose decided to burn the body of a priest who, in life, devoting more time to hunting and whoring than to the spiritual wellbeing of his flock. Having been buried in Melrose’s graveyard, he became much more of a nuisance in death, rising from his tomb each night to attack his former concubine and harass the inmates of the monastery.

melrose

Melrose Abbey, the site of a revenant encounter in 1196 (source: Wikicommons)

As a canon of the Augustinian Priory of Newburgh (N. Yorkshire) and somewhat of a religious conservative, William is coolly equivocal as to why such entities started to appear at this time. He says he can find no reference to them in Classical literature. And yet, his oblique references to such events ‘often happening in England’ and that ‘frequent examples [occurred] in similar cases’ suggest that revenants were causing much more trouble for local communities than the scant historical references indicate.  Even so, it is telling that William refers to each revenant as a ‘prodigy’ – that is, an entity whose appearance perhaps signified something else, something rotten, in the body-politic.

What, then, do these undead corpses signify? All four exempla were said to have occurred in the spring of 1196, a time of much social and economic strife in the English realm. As I discussed in a recent article for the Journal of Medieval History, William seems to be critiquing the activities of ‘social revenants’, that is to say, people whose political actions also caused the spread of disorder and death. It is perhaps no-coincidence that all four exempla follow William’s account of the treasonous activities of William FitzOsbert, a Londoner who tried to enact a rebellion and was put to death for his crimes.

tyburn

FitzOsbert was hanged at Tyburn gallows, London, in the spring of 1196, where he quickly began to be seen as a martyr (pictured, the gallows at it looked c.1680; source: Wikicommons)

Pointedly, the revenant narratives precede an account of a famine that overtook England and, a few chapters later, a digression on the death of the hated Chancellor of England, William Longchamp (d.1197). The Historia Rerum Anglicarum does not pull any punches in its description of Longchamp:

“England rejoiced at his death, for the fear of him had lain like an incubus upon her; for when he might have done much with the king, and being a man of vast spirit, could not have been forgetful of his former expulsion from England, it was evident that he would frequently plot evil against the land which had vomited him forth as some pestilential humor.”

The language of disease (‘corruption’, ‘infection’, ‘pestilence’) permeates the descriptions of the revenant encounters and is used to frame the malign activities of FitzOsbert and Longchamp. Wonders are some of the more weapons in an historians’ arsenal.  What better way to criticise the conduct of social malcontents than through the transgressive actions of a violent, pestilential corpse? Although he didn’t know exactly why the dead started to rise, William of Newburgh certainly knew how to put them to use.

 

Bibliography:

English translations taken from Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, vol. 4, part 2 (London: Seeley, 1861). Online edition, ed. Scott McLetchie, 2009, available from http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-intro.asp

Stephen Gordon, ‘Social Monsters and the Walking Dead in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum’, Journal of Medieval History 41 (2015), 446−465

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